Erudite Writing

A friend was telling me about a book she was having trouble reading and enjoying.  She (a well-educated woman) said the “writing is over the top; I have to stop now and then to look up word.  Why can’t authors simplify their writing?  Why do they have to make it so complicated?”  He husband added, “There seems to be a trend for authors to try to position themselves above their readers, and to win the admiration of critics.”  I agreed with both points, and I said that, “It seems to me that writers who are aiming for big prizes use extraordinary language to express themselves: not only in vocabulary, but in sentence structure, grammar and imagery.  Prose is becoming poetry for the benefit of the critics.”

As evidence of this trend, there are three passages below.  The first is from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  The second is how I think I would have tried to write the same passage, and the third is in ordinary English.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

After the news of his death in the plane crash reached her, she had tormented herself by inventing him: by speculating, that is to say, about her lost lover.  He had been the first man she had slept with in more than five years: no small figure in her life.  She had turned away from her sexuality, her instincts having warned her that to do otherwise might be to be absorbed by it; that it was for her, would always be, a big subject, a whole dark continent to map and she wasn’t prepared to go that way, be that explorer, chart those shores: not any more, or, maybe, not yet.  But she’d never shaken off the feeling of being damaged by her ignorance of love, of what it might be like to be wholly possessed by that archetypal, capitalised jinn, the yearning towards, the blurring of the boundaries of the self, the unbuttoning, until you were open from your adam’s apple to your crotch: just words, because she didn’t know the thing.  Suppose he had come to me, she dreamed.  I could have learned him, step by step, climbed him to the very summit.  Denied mountains by my weak-boned feet, I’d have looked for the mountain in him: establishing base camp, sussing out routes, negotiating ice-falls, crevasses, overhangs.  I’d have assaulted the peak and seen the angels dance.  O, but he’s dead and at the bottom of the sea.

William Peace

When she learned of his death in the plane crash, she agonised over day dreams of her perished lover.  As the first man she had slept with in over five years, he represented a kind of icon.  In his absence, she had repressed her sexuality out of a fear that to live and examine it would somehow frighten and diminish her.  Her ignorance of the bright spectrum of love, was a source of insecurity, and sometimes she longed to know the feeling – whatever it was – of merging one’s consciousness with that of a lover.  But, if her lover had been there she would have eschewed any leap into the heavens of love; rather she would establish a safe and slow process to advance into the heights until, in her glory, she saw the angels dance.  But, alas, her lover lay at the bottom of the sea, dead.

Plain English

Ever since the news of his death reached her, she thought of him, the first man – remarkably – she had slept with in five years.  She set aside her interest in sex out of fear of stepping into the unknown.  Nonetheless, her ignorance of love bothered her, and she wondered what it would be like to experience true and selfless love.  If her lover had been present, she would not have thrown herself into an unlimited relationship; she would have approached the situation gradually, learning and advancing slowly so that eventually she would have found true bliss.  But, of course, her lover was dead.

I’m not, by any means, suggesting that my text is in any way better that Rushdie’s.  I rather like his use of off-the-wall phrases like ‘archetypal, capitalised jinn’, but I would never think of it; and I like some of his images, which border on the poetic.  However, one has to be pretty well educated to read Rushdie.  So who is he writing for?  Critics and academics, or Mrs Smith, book reader?

The First Scene

‘Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right’ is the title of an article in the February, 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  The main point of the article is: don’t tell too much too soon.  It is written by Paula Munier who is Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Scott Literary Services.  She has experience as a journalist, editor, acquisition specialist, digital content manager, publishing executive, author and writing teacher. (!)

Paula Munier

She begins the article by mentioning that she moved from “sunny California” to the “Northeast, where winters can be brutal”, and she dreaded the prospect of beginning “a journey, even if it’s only to the grocery store – which means venturing out into sub-zero temperatures to a frigid vehicle that may or may not start.  It was a cold prospect I dreaded, until I happened upon two spectacular tools: remote car starters and heated car seats”.  These allow her to “slip into a warm seat in a warm vehicle with a warm engine and hit the road.  This is a beautiful thing.

“You want to do the same thing with your story.  Every reader starts a cold story, and you want to warm the reader up to your story as quickly as possible.  You want the reader to slip into a warm seat in a hot story with blazing beginning and take off for parts known only to you, the writer.”

She says, “One of the main reasons so many opening scenes fail is because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon.  ‘Tell’ is the critical word here.  The writer is telling – rather than showing – us the story.  Many scenes are overburdened with backstory, description, and the characters’ inner monologue, which leaves little room for the action that should be driving the story forward.”

Ms Munier then suggests an exercise to edit a beginning: mark up the text as follows:

  • mark the backstory text (what happened in the past) in blue
  • mark the description (of the setting, etc.) in pink
  • mark the inner monologue (the characters’ thoughts and feelings) in yellow

I don’t have coloured text on WordPress, but perhaps the reader would like to mark up the beginning several of my recent novels:

Seeking Father Khaliq:

“May I ask you, honoured Professor al-Busiri, if you will go to meet Princess Basheera?”

I looked up reluctantly from the student essay I was reading, and considered the bearing of the woman who had entered my office unannounced.  She was tall and slender, graceful; she was motionless, but there was a suggestion of incipient mobility.  She was dressed in a black naqib and a jilbab so that I could see only her dark eyes.  Her voice, however, had an optimistic lilt to it.  She must be about thirty, I thought.

Deliberately, I pushed the essay to one side.  “Who, may I ask, is Princess Basheera?”

“She is my employer, sir.”

“And what does this Princess Basheera want with me?”

“She has an assignment that only you can fulfil, Professor.”

This is very strange.  A young woman comes into my office at (I glanced at my watch) two thirty-six in the afternoon, and asks me to meet with a Princess Basheera (glad tidings), about whom I know nothing, to undertake an assignment, about which I also know nothing, but which, it is said, only I can undertake.

I closed my fountain pen, thinking for a moment.  “Can you give me a reason, madam, why I should say ‘yes’ to your request?  I have a full afternoon of work ahead of me, and I cannot afford the time to discuss university business.  That should be pursued through the office of administration.”
The woman nodded.  “I can assure you, Professor al-Busiri, this has nothing to do with university business.  Nor does Princess Basheera wish to sell you any product or service.  The assignment is related to your status as a renowned professor of philosophy.”

(Probably too much description and inner monologue)

Hidden Battlefields:

“There were two documents,” she confided, her eyes fixed on his across the table; “two documents that got him convicted.”

Robert nodded, urging her to continue.

She said, “Nobody testified against him, apparently.”

“What were the documents, Mary Jo?”

She sat back, and folded her arms across her chest.  She was wearing a pale blue cardigan with pearl buttons; only the top button was undone.  “Well . . .” she began and paused.

“I mean,” it was his turn to lean forward.  He looked around the busy Olive Tree restaurant that she had selected: it was near her work in Alexandria, Virginia.  No one seemed to be paying attention.  “Can you give me an unclassified version?”

“Well,” she said quietly, “one was a diagram of a centrifuge cascade.”

“A centrifuge cascade that’s used to make weapons-grade nuclear material?”

She nodded.

“How could that diagram get him convicted?”

“Because it had the actual levels of . . .”  She picked up her menu and seemed to be looking for the waitress.  To her menu, she confided: “. . . uranium enrichment on it.”

“Oh, I see, and the levels . . .”  He paused.  “. . . were much higher than anything the Iranians have announced.”

(Pretty good – no backstory, no inner monologue and very little description)

The Iranian Scorpion:

“So, I remind you of your father’s girlfriend?” Kate inquired with one eyebrow arched provocatively.

Robert was clearly enjoying this conversation. He leaned towards her, his hands clasped around the Gordon’s martini which rested on the hotel’s grey granite bar. “Yes, you do.” He watched her with a not-yet-predatory interest.

She, too, smiled, indicating her willingness to play the game. “In what way do I remind you of your father’s girlfriend?”

“Well . . .” he glanced briefly at the open button on her khaki shirt, then, he studied his martini. “Mary Jo is very good looking . . . and she has a rather nice figure . . . and she is a clever, out-going girl.”

“Girl?” Kate raised that eyebrow again, but this time it expressed scepticism. “If she’s your father’s girlfriend, wouldn’t the word ‘woman’ be more appropriate?”

“No. She’s my age.”

Kate sat back on her tall chair. “And how old would that be? – give or take a few years.”

“In my case it would be thirty-two; in Mary Jo’s, about thirty-four.”

Kate chuckled and took a sip of her white wine. “So the old man likes young skirt.”
He stirred the martini with his forefinger. “Yeah.” There was a note of resentfulness in his response.

(Again, pretty good: no backstory, no inner monologue, perhaps a little too much description.)

This strikes me as a pretty worthwhile exercise.

Writing Advice

On their website, The Writer’s Workshop say: “When you send your stuff off to an agent, 9 times out of 10 your work won’t actually be read. It’ll be ‘looked at’.  What does that mean? It means that an agent (or junior reader) will simply glance at the first page or two of your submission. In a large majority of cases, authors will give themselves away as amateurish in the opening chapter.  If you’re one of them, then the agent will read no further. Sure, the agent doesn’t know about your story, your characters, or your brilliant ideas. The fact is that if your writing style is poor, then those things are irrelevant.”  The website goes on to give lots of advice about writing style and techniques.  This makes sense: after all The Writer’ Workshop is selling their editorial services.  Their message is, ‘use our service and agents will read your manuscript’.

On the iUniverse website, there are tips from fiction authors, and I found it somewhat surprising that there were only two tips that mentioned writing style or technique.  These are:

“Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.” — Jonathan Franzen, and

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.” — Elmore Leonard

I wonder what Franzen means by ‘interesting verbs’.   If he means ‘unusual verbs’, why not say “Unusual verbs are seldom very effective”.  In which case, I agree.  I’m not sure Leonard’s advice is actually helpful.  What is ‘the knack of playing with exclaimers’?  And if there is a knack, why have a quota?

iUniverse is a self-publishing company, so maybe they want to be associated with important authors.  Anyway, here are some of the tips that caught my eye:

“In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” — Rose Tremain  I agree!

“Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” — Will Self   Maybe I should start carrying a notebook, but I doubt I would use it.

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” — Jonathan Franzen; and “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” — Zadie Smith  I disagree.  If one is writing fiction that is intended to be’real’ in time and space, how can you do it without Google?  Unless, of course, ‘good fiction’ is not real in time and space.

“Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear).” — Diana Athill  I’ve got to do more of this.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov  Beautiful.

“The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.” — Will Self   Very true.

“Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!” — Joyce Carol Oates   A necessity.

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman   True, except for publishers’ editors.

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” — Neil Gaiman  This sums it up.

 

Writing Every Day

There is an article on How to Write Every Day by Leo Babauta in the February issue of The Florida Writer.  I found it interesting to compare my experiences with his.  Leo Babauta is a ‘simplicity blogger’ and author.  He created zenhabits.net, a Top 25 blog with a million readers. ‘Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness’. He is a best-selling author, husband and father of six children.  In 2010 he moved from Guam to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Leo Babauta

Mr Babauta says “I write (a) journal, blog posts, courses for my Sea Change program, books and e-books.  For fun, I’ve written 50,000 words of a novel NaNoWriMo, and another year I wrote 110,000.  For years, I wrote newspaper articles and opinion columns.”

For me, writing consists of writing about 125,000 word novels and 50 blog posts per year.  The motivation for me to write is the joy of creation, and not – as a retiree – my means of making a living.

Mr Babauta lists the following benefits of writing every day:

  1. My writing skills have improved with the years
  2. I’m able to write faster, type faster, with so much more practice
  3. I can clarify my thinking better because of writing regularly
  4. I able to think from the reader’s perspective, which helps me in a lot of life situations
  5. I am forced to reflect on my life, which deepens my learning
  6. I am forced to figure out how to motivate myself to write regularly
  7. I learn to create a regular practice, as I do with meditation, exercise and eating healthily
  8. I learn to overcome perfection and put things out there to be judged, which helps me to embrace failure and messiness
  9. I learn to overcome distraction and procrastination.

I agree with most of his benefits, but since I do not write for a living, I am not forced to write regularly.  Typically, I write for about three hours, four days a week; this leaves time for my pro bono charity consulting, exercise, household chores, etc.  With respect to number 8, I think that most novelists strive for perfection.  We get one chance to impress our readers: when the novel is published; it is not a give and take business in the way that blog creation is.

Mr Babauta lists these actions writers can take to write daily:

  1. Most important: Have a good reason. . . . “If it’s because is sounds fun, sounds cool, sounds nice, you’ll abandon it when you face discomfort. If you want to do it to help someone else, to make the world a better place, to lift someone’s spirits, to reduce your pain, to find a way to express your deeper self, then you can call on this deeper reason when things get difficult.”  (I agree completely)
  2. Block off undistracted time.  “All you need is ten minutes a day.  But you have to block off those ten minutes.”  (I agree about undistracted time, but for me, anything less than an hour is insufficient.  I find that I need to get in touch with the feel of the novel, and ten minutes certainly isn’t enough.)
  3. Don’t let  yourself forget (the time you’ve set aside).              (This isn’t a problem for a seasoned novelist: there is a passion to keep going!)
  4. Do it in a sprint.  “Some people think they need to write for an hour or two to make it count.  But a task that big will seem daunting.”     (Two hours isn’t daunting at all, if you’re committed to writing several hundred pages.)
  5. Practice mindfulness.  “You can treat writing as meditation.  It’s a way to put everything aside but you and the writing, to let your thoughts become words on the page. ”     (I agree completely!)
  6. Practice gratitude.  “As you practice mindfulness, notice the awesomeness of this moment of self-expression.”   (Right on!)
  7. Embrace imperfection.  “Writing is about letting go of our ideals, and just doing anyway, even if we can’t have perfection.”   (This is a difficult one for a writer of literary fiction.  One concedes that achieving perfection is impossible, and one knows that it’s counter productive to fuss too long over a phrase or passage, but ultimately, that phrase of passage has to feel ‘right’.  Edit, edit, edit.)
  8. Don’t let your mind run away (for a little while).  “Your mind will want to run away from writing.  This is normal.  The mind doesn’t like uncertainty and discomfort. . . . Don’t run.”    (This is what’s known as ‘writer’s block’.  The more one writes, the less of a problem it becomes.)

Author’s Mood

In several posts, I have mentioned writer’s block.  I have said that when I have it (which is occasionally) it is usually an indication that my writing has slipped off the track, and that I should rethink my recent work, or ask myself searching questions about the direction that the novel is taking.

I will say that another important blockage for me is either being tired or in a strong mood.  If I’m tired, I can’t focus properly, and my creativity is numbed.  I don’t write when I’m tired.  If I’m in a negative mood or preoccupied with a personal  issue, I have difficulty getting  myself into the mood that the character(s) is feeling.  If I’m angry about something, I find it more difficult to feel the joy that a female character is feeling.  If I’m worried about someone, how can I fully empathize with a protagonist who is experiencing a different relationship problem?  For me, forcing myself into the mood of a character is possible only when I’m not preoccupied.

images

In fact, I find it difficult to write well about a character who is depressed if I’m in a low mood.  The empathy is there, but, if I’m in a low mood, it’s difficult to find just the right words to fully express the feelings of the character.  For me, it seems to work best if I’m in a ‘neutral mood’, empathize with the character, and then find to words to express what the character is feeling.

Let me give you an example from Sable Shadow & The Presence.  The central character is on a business trip to a Mexican oil refinery when his wife calls and tells him that his much-loved son – a military officer – has just been killed in the Somali area.

I was numb and senseless, but the pain was inescapable.  I could not really function.  I could walk, but my destination was unclear.  I could hear voices, but I had to turn toward the voice I heard and try to understand if it was addressing me.  My mind had great difficulty processing.  It was as if a powerful ray had struck my head and turned my brain to mush.  I knew David.  He helped me pack, and he rounded up the pilots.  He fastened my seat belt.  He gave me a glass of something cold, and sometimes he would reach across and hold my hand.

I had no sense of time.  I was drifting in a remote, timeless space.  Then I recognised the front door of my house.  Inside, there was Suzanne.  She was pale, years older, in that familiar blue quilted bathrobe.  We sat on the living room sofa, and she talked to me.  I don’t remember what she said.  She was very sad.  She led me to the bedroom and took off my clothes.  She removed her bathrobe.  In bed, she pulled the covers over us, and we wrapped our arms around each other.  We lay like that, weeping and dozing through the night.

There were dreams: of William trying to master a skateboard, of William holding up a small trout, of William wearing a muddied jersey number 24.

There was no mistaking the voice:  You loved William and he loved you.  Remember this.

What did you say?

But I knew what was said, and I knew the voice even though I had not heard it often for ten years or more.

Interview with Norm Goldman

I have had an e-interview with Norm Goldman, Publisher and Editor of Bookpleasures,com.

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Norm Goldman

Norm: How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?

William:  I had taken a writing course at university, and I always enjoyed writing reports in business, but I had never considered myself a writer of fiction.  About eight years ago, I was on holiday in Sicily and I had a series of romantic dreams in which I was involved as a bystander.  I thought: it would be fun to write these down.  I began writing and by the time I got to page 70, I decided to finish it.  That was my first novel.  Since then, I’ve derived an increasing satisfaction from completing novels which are better and better.

Norm:  What do you think most characterizes your writing?

William: There is always at least one character who is facing ethical/moral dilemmas.  I try also to give the reader a strong sense that what she is reading is true and real.

Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?

William:  What has been most useful is the feedback I have had on my writing.  I am also a fairly avid reader, and I always publish a review of the books I read.  This sharpens my critical skills which are important when I’m writing.  I really can’t think of an experience which has been destructive.

Norm: How many times in your career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?

William:  Countless times.  I received several dozen rejections for my first novel, and I was ready to give up on getting it published when Eloquent Books (the predecessor of my current publisher) came to me with a co-op publishing offer.  Since then I have approached about twenty literary agents and publishers for every novel I’ve written; my approaches have been universally rejected (usually politely) or ignored.  I’ve stayed with Strategic Book Publishing.  My impression is that to get a contract with a traditional, main-stream publisher, one must have a third-party intervention or recommendation.  This is an understandable symptom of risk avoidance in the publishing industry, but it also suggests a lack of independent, creative thinking in the industry.  My lack of acceptance by main stream publishers has not deterred me.  I will carry on writing better and better novels.  Someone will almost certainly notice.

Norm:  In your bio you indicated that the spiritual/religious genre is your preferred choice. Could you explain to our readers, why?

William:  I am a religious person, but not evangelical.  The romance and the three thrillers all have religious aspects.  I started writing Sable Shadow & The Presence as a kind of experiment, and I had to re-write large portions of it, but, at the end, I felt particularly good about it.  Several excellent reviews and being awarded seven minor prizes convinced me that I had found my venue.

Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of Seeking Father Khaliq? As a follow up, have you ever lived in Egypt?

William:  Before I started Seeking Father Khaliq, I decided to write about one character’s search for God, but I didn’t want a typically evangelical book. It had to involve a faith other than Christianity and a venue outside the West.  Also, the book had to have more issues than a singular focus on spirituality.  I’ve never lived in Egypt, but I’ve visited the country several times.  In creating Seeking Father Khaliq, I spent as much time on research as I did on writing.

Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

William: My intention was to leave a gentle message that if one wants to find God, He can be found, and that sometimes He is revealed in the midst of adversity.  I think the message is there and perhaps made a bit more interesting by Egypt, philosophy, Islam (good and bad), and the will-of-the-wisp Princess Basheera.

Norm: Do you worry about the human race?

William:  Not in the long term.  The short term can be a horrendous mess, but somehow we will muddle through.

Norm: How did you go about creating the character of Professor Kareem al-Busiri? (As a passing note,  I am married to someone born in Egypt and who lived there until the age of 18, I am familiar with the male Egyptian mindset and you seemed to have vividly captured it).

William:  My specifications for Kareem were:

  • A respected professor of philosophy at a prominent Egyptian university (I wanted to include philosophy to add richness)
  • He should be a secular Muslim: a sort of agnostic
  • He should be single to introduce a romantic element
  • He should be open-minded and a bit naïve (to believe Princess Basheera)
  • He should have adult children to add complexity

Norm:  What are some of the references that you used while researching this book? As a follow up, can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?

William:  My principal reference was Classical Arabic Philosophy, an Anthology of Sources, by Jon McGinnis (Translation), David C. Reisman (Editor).  I spent countless hours on the internet to gather facts, opinions and experiences.  I don’t remember their names, but I enjoyed vivid personal accounts by pilgrims on the Hajj and Arba’een.

Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?

William: The most difficult part was staying factual in detail, down to the specifications of the Russian-made weapon which killed Kalifa.  Most satisfying and enjoyable was integrating all the pieces of a complex story.

Norm:  Did you learn anything from writing the book and what was it?

William:  While I have read quite a lot about Islam, and I’ve read the Qur’an, I gained a perspective of Islamic culture, and its effect of the values of people.

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Seeking Father Khaliq?

William: I have blog (https://williampeaceblog.com/) which has been going for six years, and which includes my opinions and experiences as a writer.  I’ll let Father Khaliq speak for himself.

Norm: What is next for William Peace?

William:  I’m writing another novel, set in East Africa, with three main young adult characters: a penniless man of traditional tribal faith; a middle class, Christian woman; and a Muslim man from a wealthy, prominent family.  All are black: there is plenty of interaction and clashes in values and beliefs.

Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.

William:  What else does your ‘day job’ consist of?  Because I write with intensity only three or four hours a day, I need ‘alternative occupations’.  These include pro bono consulting work for London charities, treasurer of a charity which provides psychotherapy, and involvement with two of our daughters and their families who live nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Wickersham

There is an interview called “Inside the Writing Life” in my high school alumni magazine.  A prominent English instructor is interviewing Joan Wickersham who graduated nearly two decades after me.  Ms Wickersham has been writing most of the time since graduation; her work includes her memoir and 2008 National Book Award finalist, The Suicide Index; a book of short fiction, The News from Spain; and The Paper Anniversary, a novel.  She writes a regular op-ed column for The  Boston Globe; her writing has been published in prominent literary journals; and she has read her work on National Public Radio.

maeda_writers_g1

Joan Wickersham

Two questions and answers in this interview caught my eye.

Q: (David Weber) “You’ve sustained your output over many years.  Does the problem of writer’s block seem remote to you, or have you struggled at times to give your work the priority required?”

Wickersham: “There’s a very funny little moment in a movie I once saw, where a bored, impatient woman is trying to figure out where a piece fits in a jigsaw puzzle and she finally just puts in somewhere and smacks it in with her fist.  Writer’s block is a sign that what I’m doing isn’t working, and I can’t fix it by trying to ram something into a place where it doesn’t belong. It can take months to figure out that what I thought was a piece of the sky is actually a piece of the ocean, or that its a part of a different puzzle altogether.  I hate writer’s block, but I’m always grateful to it in hindsight.  It usually means that what I’ve been writing is somehow false, which is just as bad in fiction as nonfiction.  Writer’s block slows me down and makes me throw out pages and drafts – after I’d been working on the book about my father’s suicide for nine years, I threw out a 400 page manuscript and started over – but getting stuck can be an important investment in finding the right way to tell a story.”

I like this way of thinking about writer’s block: it’s not you that are the problem; it’s the story.  Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel cornered.  I’ll look back over what  I’ve written, and ask myself ‘what’s not working?’  Other times, particularly when I’m lying awake at night, I’ll start feeling uneasy about the direction of a particular novel.  That feeling generally leads to surgery.  When I was writing Sable Shadow & The Presence, I threw out and re-wrote whole chapters of the book, which has gone on to win eight awards.

Q: “Does a fully realized piece require its own new form, not just descriptive skill and the authority of honesty?”

Wickersham: “A lot of what I’m doing when I write is trying to figure out the inherent rules of a particular piece – the form or structure which will be most true to the story.  My husband, Jay, is trained as an architect.  A long time ago, when I was struggling to write about my father’s suicide, he told me that the students at the École des Beaux-Arts begin each design with a parti – an organizing principle.  I found this idea of the parti exciting and liberating.  I’d been wresting for years with how to organize the messy and painful story of my father’s death, and part of the problem was that the story defied any attempt at a conventional linear narrative.  When I stumbled in the parti of organizing the book as an index, suddenly I had this cool, numb structure that simultaneously imposed order and ridiculed the idea of imposing order on an inherently chaotic experience”.

I never heard of the term parti before, but it makes sense.  The novel I’m currently working on has an unusual organizing principle: two increasingly hostile narrators, whose identity is obscure at first, tell alternating chapters about three, very different, young protagonists over whom they have influence, but no control.  The setting is present day East Africa.

New Novel

My latest novel, Seeking Father Khaliq, has just been published.

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Seeking Father Khaliq is a modern allegory about one man’s search for spiritual fulfillment. Set in the Middle East, philosophy professor Kareem al-Busiri teaches at a prestigious Egyptian university.
The professor is persuaded by a Princess Basheera to find Father Khaliq for her.  From time-to-time, the professor wonders whether the princess is real or did he imagine her?  In the search, he undertakes important pilgrimages: the Hajj, Arba’een (the huge Shia pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq), to Medina (the Prophet’s tomb), to Jerusalem and Rome. He falls in love with a colleague who was his late wife’s best friend, and who like his late wife and daughter is a Coptic Christian.  He attempts to manage mortal conflicts of values and ideology between his two sons.  One son is an Egyptian army officer; the other is a lawyer who is secretly providing money and arms to the terrorist insurgency in the Sinai.  Classical Arabic philosophy is woven into the narrative to support certain viewpoints.

The back cover continues:
Carefully researched and constructed, this dynamic story reflects the current religious, political, and social turmoil of the region.
Seeking Father Khaliq is unique in its Middle East setting, and its focus on Islam, as well as elements of Christianity and Judaism. The use of the jihadist conflict in Egypt as a surrogate for larger regional conflicts, the religious pilgrimages, and the resolution of inter-faith marriage issues are also highlighted.

There are two reviews, so far:

E. Lund for Phi Beta Kappa Reviews said, in part:

” . . . Author William Peace has woven a compelling narrative that explores the issues of religion, politics and social change, all while avoiding the pitfalls of becoming a treatise. Instead, “Seeking Father Khaliq” is a moving study of a family caught up in the volatile turmoil of the times, and a father who finds that moving closer to God is a way to navigate forward.  Beautifully written with vivid depictions of religious pilgrimages, the book also delivers three dimensional characters fully realized and equally empathetic. Highly recommended for those who want to know more about this important part of the world, but as much to be enjoyed simply on its narrative merits. “

Deborah Lloyd for Reader’s Favorite said, in part:

“. . . The author’s writing style is clear and concise. The account is thought-provoking and fascinating; the reader will be forever changed. This is a much-needed book during these difficult, challenging times in our modern world.”

I will just add that this book was a great pleasure to write.  I spent at least as much time on the internet researching as I did in the actual writing.  It took two years to write – about half my normal pace.  I also feel that my original idea for the book blossomed very nicely: one man’s search for God, Middle East setting, key character a philosophy professor, told in the first person, two sons on opposite sides of the regional divide.

I hope you enjoy it!

J K Rowling’s Writing Tips

Recently, I accompanied my grandchildren on a trip to the Harry Potter exhibition at Warner Brothers Studios near Watford.  I have to confess that I am not a Harry Potter fan, but I certainly enjoyed the outing to the exhibition.  I found it astonishing the detail that goes into creating the real visual effects that appear on the screen.

Certainly J K Rowling is a brilliant author to have created the seven Harry Potter books which are so popular, worldwide.  Yesterday, I ran across her top five writing tips on the Now Novel blog.  I thought I would republish and comment on them.

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J K Rowling

1.    Write in whatever time you have

One of J.K. Rowling’s most famous quotes is: “Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there.” This is crucial advice on writing a book. It’s easy for us to imagine successful writers spending all day penning beautiful paragraphs, but everybody had to start somewhere. For Rowling, that somewhere included full-time work and finding stolen pockets of time to write. Much as it might be a dream to take six months out to write your book, odds are you’re going to have to fit it into your everyday life.

I agree that it is unwise – even couterproductive – to establish an overall deadline (unless you publisher insists on it).  For me, the minimum size of a ‘stolen pocket’ is an hour.  In less than an hour, I can’t get into a fully creative mode.

2.    Planning is essential

Instead of diving right into line 1, J.K. Rowling advises taking the time to plan out the world your books will live in. She took five years to create and develop every last detail of the Harry Potter world. Every part of Rowling’s books was planned and worked out, right down to how the Wizards and Muggles interacted (and the word Muggles, to begin with!) what the education was like, how magic helped in every day life and how the wizarding world of government worked. She also plotted out all the events of the seven books before she started writing the first.

Great if you can do it!  I write a two page outline of a novel before I start it, but for me, this is just a framework.  I find that characters want to behave differently and therefor events change, or I get an ‘inspiration’ that causes me to deviate from the original plan.  I depend a lot on these inspirations!

3.    Rewriting is just as essential

You would think after five years, J.K. Rowling would just be able to dive right in and write the whole of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, without much rewriting. She rewrote the opening chapter of her first book a total of fifteen times, however. It’s easy to imagine published authors writing with the greatest of ease, but actually the process is just as difficult for them.

I agree!  I don’t think I’ve ever reached fifteen re-writes, but four of five is not uncommon.  For me, the scope of a rewrite tends to decrease over time: after a major rewrite, what follows tends to be less and less radical.

4.    Be aware of plot and pacing

Even when you’ve plotted out all seven of the books you want to write in a series, you can trip yourself up. In fact, that’s one of the big things to be aware of when you’ve done the necessary planning: even though you know what’s going to happen next, your readers shouldn’t. They need to have a sense of excitement and uncertainty as the plot and pacing unfolds because this is where magic lies. After J.K. Rowling finished the first book in the Harry Potter series, she realised she’d given away the whole plot of the series. So she had to rewrite it, and hold back a number of integral plot points.

I tend to make changes to the plot once I’ve started writing a novel.  These changes make the novel more interesting, more exciting, or better convey the overall message of the work.  But I agree that one has to be careful that the revised plot flows seamlessly with no inconsistencies.

5.    Write your passion

Perhaps a favourite J.K. Rowling quote is: “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!” One of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so infectious is because you can tell she really loves the world she created – and all the characters in them. If you’re going to approach your book in a half-hearted manner, there’s no point even beginning it. Make sure you’re passionate about what you write and you’ll draw your readers along with you.

This is very true!  Occasionally, I find that the work is starting to lose interest for me.  Then I know that something is wrong and significant changes are required.  For example, I gave a literary friend a draft of Sable Shadow & The Presence before it was finished.  His comment: “It’s boring.”  I agreed, and I put it aside while I wrote Hidden Battlefields.  When I came back to the manuscript it was with new ideas and new enthusiasm.  When I finished, my friend (like many others) gave it a very good review.

Writing Contests: A Cautionary Tale

Warren Adler published the following article, extracted below, on the Huffington Post Books page in June of last year.  Until I read it, I hadn’t realised there was such explosive growth of on-line writing contests.

Warren Adler is best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. Adler’s international hit stage adaptation of the novel will premiere on Broadway in 2016. Adler has also optioned and sold film rights for a number of his works including Random Hearts, The Sunset Gang, The War of the Roses – The Children,Target Churchill, Residue, Mourning Glory, and Capitol Crimes.

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Warren Adler

“When I started the Warren Adler Short Story Contest in 2006 I had rather lofty ideas about integrity and fidelity to the goal of resurrecting the popularity of the short story which was in decline. I appointed qualified people, meaning people who were either authors themselves or teachers of literature or creative writing with the taste and experience to judge the submissions honestly.

“It was a difficult chore at best and I wanted to guarantee that those who were the chosen winners were the very best of those who submitted their work. I offered cash prizes out of my own pocket. The first Prize Winner received $1000 and prizes were offered for our second and third choices. The submissions were free of charge.

“In addition to the cash prizes I promised that the prizewinning stories would be published as an e-book anthology on Amazon and offered for sale with royalties given to the authors of the stories. My hope, of course, was to give a boost not only to the short story format but also to the writing careers of the talented writers who participated. The book, as promised, is available on Amazon.

“The digital publishing revolution was in its infancy and I believe I was the first novelist to ever create such a contest on the Internet. As the cyber world grew so did the submissions. It became difficult and time consuming to read all of the offerings and finding enough quality judges to devote the time to honest assessment was becoming exceedingly burdensome to administer. The last thing I wanted to do was jeopardize the integrity of the contest.

“Eventually I had no choice but to begin charging a small submission fee designed to perhaps curb the number of submissions as well as to provide judges with a stipend that would make it worth their time. Above all, the goal was to maintain the integrity of the contest and further the original goals of the enterprise.

“After seven years of sponsoring the contest, I opted for a hiatus. It was a victim of its own success. To do it right required time, personnel and resources. I finally suspended the contest. I had no desire to create a startup and it was interfering with my own busy writing career.

“What I didn’t imagine was the tsunami of writing contests that it inspired. Worse, I never suspected that it would serve as a business model for entrepreneurs to get into the game just for profit.

“I am somewhat suspect of the value these contests hold for participants.

“Self-publishing requires self-promotion. It is an absolute necessity and comes with the territory, requiring time, effort and funding. The goal is “discoverability.” Most never achieve it, regardless of the quality of their work.

“The rise of self-published fiction authors has been spectacular. Unfortunately the glut has made it difficult for them to stand out from the crowd however excellent their writing is. Genre writers with promotional skills along with lots of money and time might find a niche, although the odds of making enough money to give up their day job is long.

“These writing contests, with their prestigious sounding names, offer the impression of quality promotion for the winners and, of course, bragging rights which can be dubious and of suspect value. One wonders who the judges are that are taking on such a massive amount of submissions. Few of these contest sponsors reveal their methods or the people who read this mass of material and make their judgments. It is often true of the most prestigious awards like the Pulitzer and the Nobel and I often wonder how some of the winners have reached the attention of the judges and who makes the screening decisions.

“By and large, internet-based contests tend to always charge a submission fee, which accounts for the sponsor’s profits as well as its proliferation. Considering that these contests are expanding they must be profitable for the sponsors and are inspiring others to create mirror image money-making opportunities using a similar business plan. Their targets are vulnerable, aspiring writers desperate for recognition and the realization of their dreams.

“Most of these contests are based upon dreams of literary glory, popularity, riches and movie adaptations on the part of authors. All truly believe that their work is deserving of recognition, popularity and prestige. Many probably fit that description. Indeed the sponsors know this and exploit it. It is the key to their monetary success.

“There is a great deal of literary talent out there who go unrecognized and do not attract the traditional publishers. Of course it works both ways. The traditional publishers sometimes gamble on first novels and often lose their bets in the sales arena. Such is the nature of the beast.

“This is not meant to be a blanket condemnation of writing contests. But since the Internet is a vast swamp of snake oil salesman hawking worthless schemes, products and ideas, consider this a cautionary tale.”

My experience of writing contests is very similar to the picture Mr Adler paints.  I have entered a number of contests with most of my books, and I have won some ‘awards’ – but no money.  Even winning first place in a genre did not merit a financial award.  So, I have a wall covered with award certificates.  Invariably, I had to pay an entry fee.  To me, this doesn’t seem unreasonable: there are administrative costs and (presumably) judges fees to be paid.  But, I have never learned how the judging would take place, let alone the identity of a single judge.  I attended one award ceremony in London, at which I expected a journalist or two to be present: there were none.  Attendees consisted of some of the authors who won awards and two low-ranking admin people representing the contest.

Having said this, I still try out new contests that appear to offer more value, particularly those that offer a critique of the work submitted.